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Emma Jeong

Enemy Aliens

Published on

Emma Jeong According to the United States National Archives and Record Administration, alien enemies (also referred to as “enemy aliens”) are defined as “all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of countries with which the United States is at war.” Similar to the British during the War of 1812 and German nationals and their allies throughout the First World War, people from Germany, Italy, and Japan were labeled as enemy aliens during the Second World War (National Archives). Having come across the phrase “alien enemy” for the first time ever while scanning the National Archives’ Alien Files (A-Files), I was immediately struck by the choice of words that the government had decided to use to categorize humans, regardless of their status as nationals of countries the United States was in war with or not. The words “alien enemy” seemed to scream and point to the long history of otherization and disregard for immigrants and refugees as equal humans deserving of due respect and rights in the United States; only as of now in 2021 has a presidential administration expressed desire to move away from the word “illegal” and use “undocumented” when describing immigrants. How words are used, especially to attribute a group of people, is extremely important because it plays a major role in the way public sentiment and acceptance is formed around these people. Sugai Tomojiro’s A-File sheds light on the unique experience of someone who was labelled as an alien enemy during World War II. When looking through the individual documents in Tomojiro Sugai’s A-Files, it was evident that Tomojiro was treated entirely differently than all other immigrants or refugees. Nearly all of his documents are marked with the words “Alien Enemy” whether in the form of a stamp or text. Unlike most other immigrants who were only required to fill out Alien Registration Forms for personal details, Tomojiro had to write out an additional form, Report of Alien Enemy, which requested information about his parolee status and agency at which he was apprehended. Although he was simply a regular produce buyer, Tomojiro was monitored for his parolee status; his only crime was being born in Japan.

I wanted to draw attention to these specific documents because while immigrants and refugees faced extreme difficulties and obstacles in acquiring their status as legal citizens or residents in the United States, these so-called “alien enemies” likely faced even harsher restrictions and forms of oppression that are unknown to many. Shedding a light on the kinds of ways these individuals were othered in even more direct and harmful ways is crucial in forming a fuller picture of U.S. immigration policies and history.

While Tomojiro’s A-File did not consist of affidavits that were routine in most other A-Files, it did contain numerous government letters, memos, and reports from one Alien Control Unit officer to another. Most of them were information regarding Tomojiro’s parolee status or personal details such as place of residence. I initially thought it was interesting that there was constant communication between these officers about Tomojiro’s information including those that indicated the kinds of files or reports Tomojiro had filled out, but I later realized that this must have been essential to keep a consistent record of Tomojiro’s actions and status during the early to mid 1940s when people had no internet access. The consistent communication between directors and officers of the Enemy Alien Control Unit alludes to the intense monitoring of Tomojiro’s activities.

So what is this “Alien Enemy Control Unit”? It is defined as a special division in the Department of Justice that oversaw the operations of the Alien Enemy Control Program (government program run by the Department of Justice which implemented policies specific for alien enemies) and Alien Enemy Hearing Boards (boards considering the release, internment, or parole of alien enemies). Some of the specific jobs that the Alien Enemy Control Unit did were: reviewing the decisions of the Hearing Boards, requiring further investigation on potential internees, making recommendations to the Attorney General, or determining eligibility for re-hearings for alien enemies. When I read into the job description of the Alien Enemy Control Unit and the various sectors that the government created specifically for alien enemies, I was disappointed but not surprised at the number and extent of resources that the government was willing to spend on alienating individuals. Given that the U.S. government continues to spend millions of dollars annually for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other immigration systems such as deportation courts today, it was no surprise that the government would have done so especially during World War II when sentiments of nationalism were at its height. It made me think about how monetary and human resources have been and are continued to be allocated in such unproductive ways; the government could instead be spending those millions of dollars in healthcare or education programs rather than institutionalised systems that other and oppress human beings. The misplaced use of valuable resources that could be used to alleviate nationwide problems in the U.S. is extremely distressing and saddening especially considering that racial alienation is a continued problem today with anti-asian hate crimes prevalent throughout the country. The lack of justice served to Asian-Americans who have suffered historically exclusionary policies all the way from The Anti-Coolie Act in 1862 to discourage Chinese immigration to California to the Immigration Act of 1924 that restricted nearly all immigration from Asia is deplorable and immoral.

For this last portion, I want to discuss the psychological stress and trauma that Sugai Tomojiro must have undergone. As someone who is often regarded as a “foreigner” myself because of my Asian appearance, I know what it feels like to be treated and viewed as “less than” or “other than” American. However, I do not know what it feels like to be called an “alien enemy”. The words “alien enemy” call for division and estrangement in its every word and syllable in a way that even “illegal immigrant” does not accomplish. Tomojiro was forced to fill out government reports and forms where he had to identify himself officially as an alien enemy for a whole 3 years. I cannot imagine what it would feel like to have to sign your name under “Signature of alien enemy” and be forced to identify yourself with such criminalizing words. The U.S. government completely disregarded Tomojiro’s lived experiences as a resident of the United States and a human worthy of respect and dignity, and merely categorized him as an “alien enemy”. I can only imagine it must have made Tomojiro feel unsafe and unprotected in the very country he and his family lived in. For he was forced to identify as an alien enemy for so long, Tomojiro probably had lasting trauma until his death where he continued to feel alienated and not completely welcome or at peace with his identity. We need to try to recognize the emotional trauma and suffering these immigrants endured in order to understand the lasting harm the government’s immigration policies created. While these immigrants’ A-Files may merely seem like simple official black-and-white documents, they can create valuable stories that can help us try to fathom the lived experiences of those forced into suffering and alienation.

While Sugai Tomojiro’s A-File does not give us a full picture of the extent of harm caused by enemy alien control programs to immigrants whose only crime was being born in the country they were born in, it certainly gives us a snapshot of the life of an immigrant who hoped for a better future and the American dream, only to be labelled as an “alien enemy.” I think that an awareness of the various divisive words used by the government to categorize people is crucial for a more comprehensive insight into the bitter realities of immigration systems.